Skip to content
7 min read

Tonya Allen Joins McKnight as President

Photo credit: Shawn Lee

McKnight has selected a proven innovator, influencer, and alliance builder as it takes on the greatest challenges of this generation

The McKnight Foundation is thrilled to announce that Tonya Allen joined the Foundation as president, effective March 1, 2021. Allen comes to McKnight as a distinguished leader in philanthropy, most recently as president and CEO of The Skillman Foundation in Detroit. Poised for its next chapter, the Foundation sees her as precisely the right person to take the helm during this historic time. In the midst of a global pandemic, a national racial reckoning, and the climate crisis, Allen’s bold and visionary leadership will accelerate McKnight’s progress in addressing this generation’s most complex and urgent problems.

“Tonya is a dynamic and innovative leader who builds on the strength of McKnight’s long family history, values, and grantmaking,” said Noa Staryk, McKnight’s board chair. “With her integrity, her brilliance, and her proven track record, we have complete confidence in Tonya as a trusted, capable, impactful leader who will move our mission forward.” Staryk, a fourth-generation family member and long-serving board member, will succeed current chair Debby Landesman in January.

Allen will work closely with McKnight board members and leaders—heading an all-women, majority people-of-color senior leadership team—as well as a diverse staff of about 50. Her selection follows an extensive national search by the Foundation’s search committee, led by board members Erika L. Binger and Ted Staryk. Allen succeeds Kate Wolford, who stepped down as president in late 2019 after 13 years.

“In the midst of a global pandemic, a national racial reckoning, and the climate crisis, Allen’s bold and visionary leadership will accelerate McKnight’s progress in addressing this generation’s most complex and urgent problems.”

Dedicated to Possibility and the Power of Place

In a storied career spanning more than two decades, Allen has focused on community-led philanthropy and has been passionate about the power of transforming place. With skillful persistence, she has worked to engage communities and bring together diverse sectors to meet opportunities and challenges, and advocated for equitable policies and practices that benefit all people.

“Tonya is a highly respected civic diplomat and bridge builder who will be a leader for all of McKnight’s programs and partners in Minnesota and across the globe,” said Debby Landesman. “She excels at diving into complexity, testing new approaches, and mobilizing people and communities toward a common vision for change.”

Allen can trace her belief in the value of service and philanthropy to her grandmother’s front door. As a child growing up in Detroit, Tonya would watch as her grandmother, herself an activist and neighborhood organizer, welcomed those most in need into her home.

“Families would come to my grandmother’s house in the middle of the night because their water was out, or they didn’t have heat. And she would always open her door,” recalled Allen. “What I took from those experiences is that we all are gifted. We don’t have to be gifted with money or stature, but we’re all gifted with something. And sharing the gifts of compassion and altruism is extraordinarily impactful.”

Allen joined The Skillman Foundation in 2004, starting as program director and then vice president of programs before earning the top position in 2013. At Skillman, she designed the 10-year $100 million Good Neighborhoods program and was a driving force in building a coalition that resulted in one of the most ambitious educational reforms in Detroit’s history.

Prior to Skillman, Allen served as a program officer for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Thompson Foundation. She founded Detroit Parent Network, a parent membership organization dedicated to improving educational options for children, and led the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Rebuilding Communities Initiative in Detroit.

“With her integrity, her brilliance, and her proven track record, we have complete confidence in Tonya as a trusted, capable, impactful leader who will move our mission forward.” —NOA STARYK, INCOMING BOARD CHAIR

Beyond her work in Detroit, Allen is a skilled and collaborative leader on the national stage. She serves on several statewide and national boards. She is the incoming chair for the Council on Foundations; she also serves as chair of Oakland University board of trustees, and co-chair for the Executives’ Alliance for Boys & Men of Color. She received the Nicholas P. Bollman Award at the 2017 Funders Network annual conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy named her among Five Nonprofit Innovators to Watch in 2013.

Allen holds a master’s degree in public health, a master’s degree in social work, and a bachelor’s degree in sociology, each from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. She has earned fellowships with the Aspen Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.

Allen said she feels drawn to the values, people, and philanthropic promise of Minnesota and looks forward to settling into the region. She is devoted to her family, which includes her husband, Louis, and three daughters, Phylicia, Brianna, and Alanna.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity to work side by side with our partners to advance collective leadership that will accelerate the speed, scope, and scale of impact.” —TONYA ALLEN, INCOMING PRESIDENT

Meeting This Moment at McKnight

McKnight’s decision is one more step forward in an evolution that began with a revised Strategic Framework, and a new mission to advance a more just, creative, and abundant future where people and planet thrive. In the quest for a new president, the board sought a leader who would build on the Foundation’s program commitments in the arts and equitable communities in Minnesota, climate and clean energy in the Midwest, international crop research, and neuroscience; bring a depth and perceptiveness in racial equity and inclusion; and move the Foundation forward to its next level of impact.

With Allen’s hire, McKnight will continue to take bold action to advance climate solutions in the Midwest, build an equitable and inclusive Minnesota, and support the arts in Minnesota, international crop research, and neuroscience.

They found that leader in Tonya Allen. She shares McKnight’s vision for the possibility and power of philanthropy—for its ability to spark change, innovate, and leverage all uses of philanthropic capital to advance its program areas. She is called to build a sustainable, just future in Minnesota and beyond, making sure every person thrives. If this state can forge progress on these issues, she said, it will serve as a model for the rest of the country.

“I am excited to join the McKnight Foundation.” said Allen. “I feel called to this remarkable institution and to the unique opportunities and challenges of Minnesota. We have an extraordinary opportunity to work side by side with our partners—community activists, corporate executives, public system leaders, and nonprofit champions—to advance collective leadership that will accelerate the speed, scope, and scale of impact. Together with my talented colleagues, I am ready to build on McKnight’s greatest strengths and assets, and usher in system change commensurate with what it will take for people and planet to thrive.”

To learn more about Tonya Allen, read this profile.

What People are Saying about Tonya Allen Joining McKnight

English